This year Christians everywhere (Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant) will celebrate Easter on the same day. Unfortunately, this will not happen again for several years. Let’s take the opportunity to reflect on a puzzling detail of Christian liturgical language. This Friday is the day Christians will commemorate the crucifixion and death of Jesus. But why do they call it “Good Friday”?
The term “Good Friday” would seem to be peculiar to English and a few other languages. In most languages, people call it something else. The Greeks call it “The Holy and Great Friday” (Η Αγία και Μεγάλη Παρασκευή), or simply “Great Friday” (H Μεγάλη Παρασκευή), as do many eastern European languages. The Gospel of John refers to it as “the parasceve (“day of preparation”) for the Passover” (Jn 19:14). Similarly, in older Latin liturgical books, it is called “Sixth Weekday in Parasceve” (Feria VI in Parasceve). Romance languages call it “Holy Friday” (Spanish: Viernes Santo; French: Vendredi Saint; Italian: Venerdì Santo). The Germans call it “Sorrowful Friday” (Karfreitag). So in most other languages, people don’t call it “Good Friday.” English seems to be the exception here.
Yet English is not alone. A few other European languages call it “Good Friday,” including Danish (God fredag), Dutch (Goede Vrijdag), Lithuanian (Geras penktadienis), Norwegian (God fredag), and Polish (Dobry piątek).
What, then, is the etymology of the English “Good Friday”? There are three theories. First, some suggest that it is called “Good Friday” for theological reasons: “We call that day “good” on which Christ died because by His death He showed His great love for man, and purchased for him every blessing” (Baltimore Catechism, Question 383). This makes sense, but it is more a justification for the usage than an explanation of how the usage came about in the first place. In other words, it is a theological defense, not an etymology.
The second theory is that “Good Friday” is derived from “God’s Friday” (German: Gottes Freitag). This would make it similar to “goodbye,” which is derived from “God be with ye.” But English language experts do not consider this a plausible etymology for “Good Friday.”
The third theory, and most probable, is put forward in the Oxford English Dictionary. According to this theory, the term “Good Friday” is derived from a Middle English use of “good” as “designating a day on which or season in which religious observance takes place.” In other words, in Middle English, “good” could be used of a day that was “holy” or “sacred.” This agrees with the fact that the earliest known usage of “guode friday” in English comes from The Early South-English Legendary, a Middle English text (c. 1300). It also makes “Good Friday” closer in meaning to “Holy Friday,” as it is called in other languages.
So while the theological theory may explain why Christians continue to call it “Good Friday,” and although the theory connecting “Good Friday” with “God’s Friday” seems plausible at first, the most accepted etymology is that in Middle English “good” used to mean “holy” or “a day for religious observance.” Thus, “Good Friday” would appear (in its original meaning) to be equivalent to “Holy Friday.”
So maybe English is not so peculiar after all.